Recently, while passing Prince Street, I saw something curious out of the corner of my eye: an alien. One of the original Space Invaders, to be precise. Some local artist had used ceramic tiles to re-create one of the little attackers from the famous 1978 video game. If you go by, you’ll see it hanging there frozen in mid-stride—as if it were just another New Yorker, blending into the scene.
In a way, it is. Twenty-five years after they colonized the arcades, the original video games have begun to invade a whole new area: pop culture and high art. Hip-hop artists merrily plunder the bleepy sounds and images of the old games; Lil’ Flip built the track “Game Over” entirely around samples from Pac-Man, and in Sugababes’ hit “Freak Like Me” you’ll hear the sounds of Frogger. Not to be left out, the Los Angeles Philharmonic recently played an entire concert of music adapted from the Final Fantasy series of games. In one of his Cremaster films, Matthew Barney transformed the Guggenheim into a side-scrolling adventure game, with participants defeating the boss at the end of each spiral hallway. Games are even showing up in novels, such as D. B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy, where the protagonist is obsessed with hunting down a copy of a rare arcade game from his youth, convinced it’ll finally imbue his late-twentysomething life with meaning.
You could chalk this up to kitsch, of course, just another example of the marketing vogue for old-school Adidas and remakes of seventies shows. Indeed, companies like Atari—which originally made the games—have reissued their games for sale at hipster barns like Urban Outfitters. But I think it’s more than mere nostalgia. If artists are drawn to old games, it’s because they represent something much deeper: the moment computers became part of society. They’re the watermark of the digital age, a permanent record of our earliest, most unsettled responses to these creepy new machines.
After all, computers originally weren’t supposed to be for ordinary use. They were meant for the military and universities: for calculating missile trajectories and looking for patterns in data. But it wasn’t long before hippyish users were inventing ways to let game players shoot asteroids into smithereens, or careen a Pong ball perfectly off a wall. With their lo-fi, clunky graphics, these early programs featured a strange mix of crudity and perfection: trippy, hallucinogenic animations that moved around the screen with perfect physics. And as with all geek creativity, culture for kids, and pretty much everything involving play, they were initially dismissed as pop junk—at best, mind candy, at worst, a dangerous opiate.
Maybe 25 years is exactly the amount of time you need before something simple can start looking like something archetypal. Artists love these old games because they’re like mythological stories—and incredibly weird ones. Fat little plumbers trying to rescue princesses? Little yellow pie-shaped mouths running around mazes, pursued by ghosts? It’s like a fever dream, a bunch of Dalí paintings brought to life. The 25-year-old Brooklyn artist Cory Arcangel understands this: A year ago, he hacked into an old Super Mario cartridge and reprogrammed it to display an endless procession of the game’s low-res clouds floating through a peaceful blue sky.
The piece—Super Mario Clouds—was part of this year’s Whitney Biennial, and when you look at it, you realize those early games were practically Impressionistic in their stripped-down beauty. Since they have no complex 3-D to hide behind, gazing at these images is like observing the internal life of a computer: You can peek through the screen and see the truly alien mind of the machine. Retro video games are what computers think about when we’re not around.
It’s certainly true that for their human users, computers have always seemed maddeningly, even frighteningly, mysterious. In an era when people were still adjusting to these new tools, games provided a staging ground for our anxieties—a kind of therapy session between man and machine. In a 1989 essay for the American Museum of the Moving Image, the poet Charles Bernstein pointed out that Pac-Man and Space Invaders are all about “saving” things, navigating mazelike structures, and dealing with onslaughts of information. That’s practically a Jungian map of our digital lives.
Of course, these days we’ve made our peace with technology. We’re in love with our BlackBerries, our TiVos, our iBooks. But as that little ceramic Space Invader reminds us, we owe our high-tech culture to those old games: While we played them, they played us.